Meet Helen Faith, FAAC®, NASFAA's 2023-24 National Chair!
Helen is the director of student financial aid at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Helen began her career over two decades ago as a financial aid adviser at her alma mater, the University of California, Santa Cruz, after seeing a posting at her public library, where she was an employee. “It's been a journey ever since I first started,” she said.
Since then, Helen has worked in aid offices at Portland State University, Oregon Health & Science University, University of Western States, and Lane Community College. Now at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Helen oversees a team of 48 full-time staff, which includes four associate directors overseeing different areas and the university’s Student Success Through Applied Research Lab (SSTAR Lab), which conducts original research and evaluation on issues related to college opportunity and student success.
Helen has held multiple positions in NASFAA, including as a representative on the NASFAA Board of Directors for the WASFAA region, a member of the Nominations and Elections Committee, a member of the Cost of Attendance Task Force, and more.
As she begins her tenure as 2023-24 NASFAA national chair, Helen took some time to discuss with Today's News her goals for the next year and what inspires her as a financial aid professional.
TN: What do you think is the biggest issue facing the federal aid programs right now?
HF: To me, the top issue is the failure of the federal Pell Grant to keep pace with the increases in the cost of education in the 51 years that it has existed. If the Pell Grant had kept up with where it was in the 1970s and the early 1980s, it would be almost triple of what it is now — and that would really change the conversation around college affordability really radically.
If it weren't for the fact that Pell Grants have dwindled in their value, we wouldn't have the student borrowing issue that we have today. We wouldn't have the concerns over students being able to access an education to begin with. This is further compounded by the fact that the job market needs in the U.S. are much more reliant on higher education and postsecondary educational credentials than they ever were before. And that's only going to increase over time. The combination of Pell Grants not covering a substantial portion of the cost of education at a four-year public college, with the increasing workforce demands on postsecondary education, has really just led to a huge increase in the need for students to borrow.
TN: What are your top three goals for your tenure as national chair of NASFAA?
HF: First and foremost, the top of my mind is supporting our communities through FAFSA simplification, which of course represents just the most significant, sweeping changes to our federal student aid programs in our lifetime. It's going to take a lot of operational changes in our offices — which are a very heavy lift — and the burden of that varies a great deal from institution to institution. Also, there's a certain level of unpredictability in terms of what information we're going to have. We're on a very short runway at this point, so I really want to be there supporting folks through this process.
I think the other piece of that is really adjusting almost psychologically to the changes — the cultural change to go alongside the operational changes. Getting used to concepts like a minimum Pell Grant that would go to students who don't necessarily have the lowest SAI, for example, is going to be a big change. Certainly, helping families through the process of applying who will have to report farm assets and business assets for the first time — we're going to see some changes in how that impacts the family’s calculated ability to pay and resulting financial aid. The removal of the number of students in college from the household as a point of consideration was a really hot topic at the NASFAA conference, and whether schools will be using professional judgment to take into account some of those costs. There's going to be a lot of heavy lifts there.
The second goal I would outline is just to continue to advocate for positive policy and funding changes to support students and institutions. First and foremost, that means increasing the power of the Pell Grant, so that it more closely resembles where it was decades ago and reduces the need for students to borrow. I think it's also important that researchers, practitioners, and folks writing policy know one another and be in conversation. So really, I'm continuing to support those connection points between policy, practice, and accountability.
The third goal is advocating for our profession and elevating our profile. I want to build on the work that our Advancing the Profession Task Force completed this past year, in creating the Advancing the Profession Toolkit. I want to ensure that our colleagues are aware of the tools in the toolkit and that they use those tools. I want to help raise awareness of the complexity and the depth of the skills that are needed for us to be successful in administering financial aid. I'm calling on university leaders to understand and value the critical role that we can play in supporting our institutions’ missions and goals.
TN: What is the best professional advice you have been given?
HF: I've gotten a lot of great advice over the years. One of the touch points that I keep on coming back to — and this actually predates my first job in financial aid — was taken from Joseph Campbell. It's “follow your bliss.” And that actually came from my high school orchestra conductor of all people, when I was reaching out to him after high school. He had been a mentor of mine during school and he said that I needed to stop looking for other blueprints for success, and to really think about what mattered to me.
TN: What would you be doing if you were not working in financial aid?
HF: I mentioned this at the national conference during my incoming-chair speech. When I gave my graduation speech when I finished high school, I talked about making the world a better place. Fundamentally, it felt naive, but I think it still very much rings true for me that whatever I'm doing, I'm seeking to make the world a better place. One thing that I considered for many years, even after starting my financial aid career, was going to law school. And I do think that if I weren't working in financial aid, it might be because I might have decided to go to law school and pursue some sort of work to improve the lives of folks who are less fortunate.
TN: What was your most motivating financial aid experience?
HF: The most motivating financial aid experience was probably when I was at UC Santa Cruz, where I had the opportunity to work with a donor who was actually the first foster youth to ever attend and graduate from the university.
He had been pretty financially successful and also had been able to garner support from others who were motivated by his story. He was taken under the wing of the first provost when he started at UC Santa Cruz and his family took care of him during the breaks when he didn't have anywhere to go. To pay tribute to them, he started a program at UC Santa Cruz for former foster youth that provided a combination of scholarship funding and a mentoring relationship that would help fill in some of the gaps that some of these students might have, because they didn't necessarily have the same familial connections with adults in their lives, as other students did.
That program has grown and flourished in the past almost 25 years at this point. I was there very early on in the creation of that program and it's just helped so many students over the years. It really did demonstrate the importance to me of not just providing students with funding, but also providing them with the personal and emotional support, and to be that lighthouse for students. Just having one person cheering for a student, or having a personal connection with a student who might be struggling, can make all the difference in the world and their ability to be successful.
TN: If you could change one thing about financial aid, what would it be?
HF: I would say certainly tripling the maximum Pell Grant would be it. But in addition to that, I think it would be really impactful if we could do something along the lines of a one-time FAFSA.
What we know is that family incomes tend to be fairly stable from year to year. We typically don't see huge swings in the expected family contribution (EFC) — soon to be renamed the Student Aid Index, or SAI — from year to year, yet we make students jump through these hurdles every year. If students had a little bit more predictability and stability, and didn't need to jump through unnecessary hoops each year, I think that would help to support student persistence and success, particularly for students who are most disadvantaged. If I could make one change, it would be for students to just have to apply for financial aid once and for that application to be good for six or seven years, until they are able to complete their bachelor's degree.
TN: What's the best thing that has happened to you recently?
HF: Certainly being at the NASFAA national conference in San Diego was really wonderful, and seeing all of my colleagues. That was the biggest conference that we've had in 15 years. It was really great to be there and to be there with such a strong representation of folks from Federal Student Aid (FSA) and the Department of Education (ED). I think just overall being at that conference and witnessing how FSA and ED folks related to our colleagues and just seeing how we all support each other, as well as the gavel pass, was just wonderful.
TN: What's something you couldn't function without?
HF: I hate to say my phone. If I'm being super realistic, it would be very hard for me to function without my phone. However, I think bigger picture, I would not be able to function without my family supporting me and without my spouse and my children kind of bringing me down to ground level. Sometimes we can get so deep into the day-to-day work and we can be under a lot of stress. But if it weren't for my family being there as my touchstone and my reminder to also engage in self care, I think I would have a much harder time being good at my job.
TN: What's on your bucket list, or any upcoming travel plans?
HF: I don't really have any upcoming household travel plans in the near future. But in terms of the bucket list, the one thing that stands out to me most is that I'd really like to take my family to France before my kids move out of the house. That's going to be a shorter timeline since my oldest child is about to go into his sophomore year of high school.
Both my kids went to a public, French language immersion program from kindergarten until 2020, during the pandemic, and so they have a really solid French language foundation. And right before the pandemic, we had an intern living with us from Brittany, France, who was helping at their school. He was with us for a few months. I've always wanted to go to France and let my kids use their language skills and see the culture that they learned all about in school, and also to go visit the hometown of our intern in Brittany.
TN: What’s on your summer reading list?
HF: I was at a Fourth of July party recently here in Wisconsin, hosted by a friend of a family member. And at that party, I met a food author, who happens to be local and lives in my neighborhood. She was just releasing her new cookbook at the Dane County Farmers’ Market, which is a really wonderful farmers’ market here in Madison. So I went and I picked up her book and got her autograph. I definitely plan to read through and use that new cookbook to help me use some local produce and develop some new cooking skills. I love food. I love cooking it. I love eating it. I love learning about it. So that's definitely one thing that's on my summer reading list.
Leave your welcome messages, comments, and congratulations to Helen in the comments section below!
Publication Date: 8/1/2023